“Holy Mother of God!” tweeted Eric Ding, a nutritional epidemiologist loosely affiliated with Harvard’s School of Public Health, in reference to an unpublished paper about the coronavirus’s “R0”, a malleable measure of the disease’s contagiousness.
This overreaction and a misleading stream of comments by Ding set off a social media storm that died out as quickly as it was ignited. He appears to have deleted the original message but continues to comment. Soon after, false suggestions that the virus was man-made and contained HIV DNA caused another social media storm.
Ding was able to wield his Harvard public health degree as a shield against his critics, and feed into the media drama that builds up around epidemics more generally.
The virality of his comments, and the alarm they caused, fit with a familiar pattern of toxic discourse around international disease outbreaks that have real consequences.
We’ve seen this movie before: fear-mongering presented as expert analysis, racial scapegoats, the politics of disgust, xenophobia, and national security theatrics.
The coronavirus is new, but not the toxic narratives around it.
If the 2003 SARS outbreak and the 2014 West African Ebola outbreak offer us any lessons, it is that in an information vacuum, it is easy for an outbreak narrative to form, one that scapegoats and marginalises. Discussions about the geographical origins of this disease have fuelled its racialisation; its racialisation has reinforced and circulated stereotypical views about racialised groups of people, their behaviours, and cultural and social practices.
Suspicion and doubt are also being cast on people who have travelled to China, or to people who appear to have Chinese heritage or ancestry. Racial coding of this new disease may seem to only operate at the level of “discourse”, but these words and ideas, and the contexts in which they operate, have serious consequences for China’s citizens and members of its diaspora.
The social media drama, and othering, are characteristics of what literary theorist Priscilla Wald in her book Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative calls a “formulaic plot”. Wald argues that these “outbreak narratives” often are “stigmatising… [of] individuals, groups, populations, locales (regional and global), behaviours, and lifestyles…. They matter because they “influence how scientists and the lay public understand the nature and consequences of infection, how they imagine the threat”.
In August 2014, at the height of the West African Ebola epidemic, Newsweek magazine featured a photograph of a chimpanzee on its cover claiming that bushmeat smugglers were giving Ebola a “backdoor to America”. The magazine did not provide evidence that West African game meat posed any plausible risk in America, but the headline did reflect and shape discriminatory attitudes toward West African immigrants and travellers.
In reports like these, West Africans were “othered” as carriers of a deadly virus who “smuggle” potentially deadly contraband through the “back door”, an erogenous zone erected at US ports of entry.
The spread of the novel coronavirus was first linked to a seafood market in Wuhan, setting off an all-too-familiar series of reflections driven by a politics of disgust. Embedded in such stories is that animal-to-human transmission results from unseemly, perhaps too-intimate, contact with vilified “rogue” animals: rats, bats, apes, and pigs.
“Sinophobia and racism coerce us into conspiracy.”
There’s another “market”, where tropes are trafficked – social, financial, cultural, viral – and where ideas about the virus circulate at dizzying speeds.
This marketplace covers national security, racism, political opportunism, superpower rivalry and conspiracy theories. Recent commentary by US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross revealed one real-world market perspective starkly: “I think it will help to accelerate the return of jobs to North America, some to [the] US, probably some to Mexico as well,” Ross said.
US Senator Tom Cotton articulated an already widely circulated conspiracy theory about the disease’s origins: “I would note that Wuhan also has China's only biosafety level-four super laboratory that works with the world's most deadly pathogens to include, yes, coronavirus." For some, China is an ethical Wild West, where scientists toil in their laboratories with unfettered access, weaponising killer viruses and releasing them – unwittingly or not – into an unsuspecting public.
Sinophobia and racism coerce us into conspiracy thinking that presupposes Chinese scientific malfeasance, and minimises – if not subsumes – the suffering of others confined by government-sponsored lockdowns and quarantines, or who have witnessed loved ones become ill or die. The shifting messages about the virus’s origin and reservoir only serve to heighten anxieties and foster mistrust of Chinese government agencies mounting the response.
The lessons of SARS from 2003, and from the more recent West African Ebola crisis just haven’t stuck.
Outbreak narratives are not simply narratives with no bearing or consequence on the world. Who survives, and how the disease spreads, both affect and are affected by their persistence.
Behind the headlines: How will COVID-19 impact crisis zones? | Thursday 19 March
Aid agencies are scrambling to adapt as the COVID-19 pandemic is felt throughout the world. Join Senior Editor Ben Parker as he speaks to leading experts and practitioners from across the humanitarian sector to discuss some of the most pressing issues.